Malcolm Gladwell: Why College Football Should Be Outlawed

Submitted by Edward Khil on April 30th, 2012 at 8:23 PM

Slate interviews the best-selling author about head injuries, player exploitation and the subversion of the academic mission.

Colleges are going to get sued, and they will have to decide whether they can afford their legal exposure. That said, the issue ought to be how big-time college sports subverts the academic mission of university education.



April 30th, 2012 at 11:10 PM ^

I'm ready to be corrected on this, but the worst brain damage cases (maybe it's just the ones that get the most attention) are for players who had been in the NFL.

I think the NFL's model is a big part of the problem.  The season is too long -- almost twice as long as college when exhibitions are included, and the players are too big and strong.  It's been years since I could really enjoy watching the NFL -- it just seems like too much of a meat grinder.

If they were to ask me, I'd say cut the regular season back to fourteen games and eliminate exhibitions entirely.  Football is dangerous enough that it seems absurd to play a whole lot of games that don't count in the standings, and a shorter season means fewer collisions and less damage.  It's a bit of a balancing act, there's a lot of demand for the NFL's product, but I think less would be more here.  Then I'd suggest they add at least one more bye week so players get another chance to heal up during the season.

One thing that we might have to consider would be weight limits.  You can't make players slower but you can measure weight and say this guy is too big.  That might reduce the force of a lot of collisions.  I would say that the league has to really be on top of performance-enhancing drugs too, both because of the way that artificially enhanced brawn make for more forceful collisions, and because the PEDs can have really nasty side effects on players too.  The players union needs to be ready to cooperate here.

Another thing that needs to be rethought is youth football.  We've got kids playing tackle football at nine, years before the brain case is completely formed (at around age twelve) and I can't wonder if that might be contributing.

The one smart thing that the NFL has done is replace the artificial turf with real grass or more grass-like surfaces.  I suspect that a lot of damage was done by guys hitting the turf hard -- the old turf didn't have a lot of give to it.

My guess is that football can probably be saved, but we need to be mindful that football is violent, and that body and brain can only take so much punishment.


May 1st, 2012 at 12:12 AM ^

A great, great, GREAT many people suffer long-term neurological harm because they drink too much. Even people who never manifest specific harm have diminished mental faculties and increased chances of subtle problems, such as deppression.

Are you going to try and limit the harm people do to themselves by telling them how much they can drink as well?

The NFL is the least of my concerns. That truly is assumed risk. These people are being paid to play. They also have means enough to inquire what they are doing. I know for a fact players don't like the long seasons, in good part because of the increased "carnage" it causes. But they have a players union to bargain for their wishes, and they have the right to walk away whenever they want.

I'm not really worried about college football either. If you play in college and quit while you're ahead, there's nothing you can't do with your life. I point to the case of Gerald Ford who declined to go pro, even though the Lions and Packers wanted him.


May 1st, 2012 at 6:54 AM ^

Gerald Ford and now, ane somewhere in there some decided to lowerr your head and use it to knock thr ball out or the snot out of your opponent is a good idea. We had a kid on my sons Pop Warner team who would do this even after we did drill after drill teaching him not to, because his ex-minor-NFL safety dad told him to. Some of the local teams coach their kids to do this too. Same reason. Just like bounties, it sounds like the old guard need to evolve as they teach the new generation.

I will say that Jerry Hanlon stopped a drill and yelled at my son for not paying attention and not keeping his head up in a blocking drill at youth camp. So it would seem the Michigan staff is teaching the right way as well. But there will still be kids who have been taught for years that if you want to hit hard ...


April 30th, 2012 at 11:39 PM ^

  Anytime there is physical activity ( running, lifting , whatever) and threat of collision with physical mass while performing that physical activity, then there is a risk for injury. if you took a job as a crash test dummy would you sue because you hit your head in a crash? When a 6' 200 pound man running a 4.4 sec. 40 yard dash collides with a 6'5 300 pound man you could get hurt. I guess I would feel differently if there wasn't the possibility of making millions of dollars or the fact that schools handle the doctor bills.

 If an amatuer boxer suffers a head injury guess who pays for his medical  bills.



April 30th, 2012 at 11:44 PM ^

I realize that this statement should probably be prefaced with a lot of caveats and potential for backtracking, becuase there's a number of ways it could come back to bite me, but the truth is, I'm prepared to take that hit to make what I consider a positive change in our society happen.

Barring outright and baldfaced profiteering-based lies: I am sick of a society that operates from a makework for lawyers and public officials standpoint, and in doing so absolves people of personal responsibility.


"I didn't know that running into another person as hard as I could/playing with explosives/not reading the directions for my nail gun could cause me injury", is not a fair reason to make law, policy or a judicial decision. It is not a fair reason to award funds or rights.

We have become a society wherein common sense is no longer considdered common. It is leading to a state of common lack of sense.


May 1st, 2012 at 1:03 AM ^

 In Nascar, cars wreck and kill drivers and spectators a like. Name a succesful professional boxer who could speak in full sentences after he retired. in my life time (1975 - current) there have been atleast 5 people who died on the ice in professional hockey from being slashed by skates or hit with a puck or sticks. Now the reason this guy is writing about college football and not these other sports, is to be 100% honest, a majority of folks don't care about hockey, nascar or boxing (anymore).

 All professional sports are dangerous and everyone involved know the risks. As long as there is money to be made by the people involved they won't ban any major sport. Hell, falling coconuts kill an average of 150 people a year. I'm sure the number of people who receive head injuries from falling cocnuts is a lot higher. To make matters worse , hundreds of thousands of people don't tune in to watch a cocnut tree grow! Let's ban coconuts!


May 1st, 2012 at 12:11 PM ^

A majority of the people in the U.S don't care about Nascar. I've lived in a lot of places and only in 3 states that I have lived has Nascar been popular ( North carolina, Arizona and Michigan). In California, Kansas, Ohio and Florida folks could careless about Nascar. The level of popularity in North Carolina tho was scarey. It didn't help that we went to church with Richard Petty I guess. I knew who he was sort of but, all I really remember is his daughter was cute back then.


May 1st, 2012 at 12:22 PM ^

I don't know much about Nascar, but I do know that it implemented significant changes to both the driver's cabin (the helmet restraint technology mandated after Earnhart's death) and to car engines (the restrictor plate that limits speeds) in response to driver deaths. Various levels of football have started to make such changes (the fines for targeting heads, changes to kickoffs) but it should make more as well as working to improve helmet technology and mandate its adoption in response to the sub-concussive injury studies.


May 1st, 2012 at 2:17 AM ^

Well, looks like Maclolm Gladwell just made my shit list.

I'm going to sue my college because I kill all of my brain cells from drinking. Same logic, basically.


May 1st, 2012 at 2:52 AM ^

The real concern in terms of the long-term health of football is that High Schools may stop having it.  If  High Schools decide it is too dangerous to field teams, where do all the kids learn how to play?

Maybe a bunch of AAU teams would spring up or something, I'm not sure.  Whatever happened, the quality of teh college games would be severly diminished.


May 1st, 2012 at 3:18 AM ^

He's definitely right as far as football being dangerous but what propels college football is not the talent that comes out of high school. It's the atmosphere that surrounds college towns and universities. Their will always be kids that have a dream of playing professional football. Regardless of their talent level, the university will support the kids that choose to play football at their school. The alumni will always support their school. The region will still have a geographical connection, so they will continue to support the school. College football is built on loyalty and pride. The only way college football will stuggle would be a collapse of the United States education system. I think we are safe.

Ball Hawk

May 1st, 2012 at 4:09 AM ^

You are taught from the very beginning of youth football that you never tackle with your head down and you never lead with your head to initiate contack because YOU COULD BREAK YOUR NECK OR SUFFER A CONCUSSION. That is football 101.

Section 1

May 1st, 2012 at 7:54 AM ^

Let us assume, just for purposes of argument, that Malcolm Gladwell is correct, and that football is excessively risky, for brain injury.

And let us further assume, that the risks of brain injury go up exponentially with higher-level football (with the NFL being the most extreme risk).

If we assume all of that to be true, what is the interest in "paying" collegiate football players?  Doesn't that just raise the stakes for all concerned?  It increases the motivation for 18 year-olds to decide to play college football.  As we know in the recruiting process, it imposes itself on 16 and 17 year olds, many of whom are from poor backgrounds. 

Paying athletes also raises the stakes for the institutions; to bring in more revenue; and to produce a more professionalized entertainment product.  The players will need, and will get, lawyers and agents and financial planners.

Finally, a cadre of paid professional athletes within a university further separates them from the rest of the student body.  If you want to really drive a wedge between the main student body and a class of athletes, the surest way to do it is to pay the athletes to focus on athletics away from the rest of the university.

I honestly wouldn't mind it, if we de-emphasized college football, away from being a farm system for the NFL.  If the Ivy League became the model for all of the rest of collegiate sports, I would much prefer that, to paying players.

Malcolm Gladwell's proposal to pay players does nothing to address his concerns about head injuries; I expect that it would make whatever problems that now exist much worse.


May 1st, 2012 at 8:25 AM ^

This just pisses me off.  This guy sounds jealous of people that have fun in life.  Sorry pal, 114,000 people are not going to ever watch college track meets on a regular basis.  As a former college lacrosse player I also have news for you, 114,000 people will never watch a lacrosse game every saturday in the spring.

Football players are naturally aggressive human beings.  Aggressive human beings bang their head on a lot of shit when they are kids growing up.  They jump their BMX bikes and land on their head.  They climb up tree houses, jump off for the thrill, and bump their head.  They headbutted the wall, floor, the dog and dad's leg when they were toddlers and upset.  They play dodgeball with their friends and get hit in the head.  They play hockey and get hit in the dead.

I could go on and on but the argument of a thousand little hits leading to the end of College Football is shit.  When pop warner, middle school, and high school football are extinct, I'll believe it.  When kids don't like to participate in violent contact sports I'll believe it.  When people don't like watching violent contact sports, I'll believe it.  Otherwise I'll still be at the big house every saturday in the fall or on my couch for at least 5 hours watching one of the greatest teams in one of the greatest sports in history.  

Hail to and suck our collective BALLS Malcom.

Mr. Yost

May 1st, 2012 at 8:55 AM ^

Should the outlaw college hockey, club rugby? Should all college soccer players wear ultra padded helmets?

Why just football?

Concussions part of most sports.


May 1st, 2012 at 12:40 PM ^

Football and hockey are the two team sports to be linked to CTE, which, rather than just concussions, has been the focus of the concern. 

Now, this may be because only football and hockey players have arranged to have their brains donated to the major CTE study at BU (along with a few boxers). It would certainly be interesting to see if the brains of soccer players have similar effects, given the extensive heading (and I know that when I played soccer, it wasn't uncommon to become dizzy after slightly misheading the ball). But given the new research, and what we know CTE does to the brain, I don't think it's acceptable to just shrug it off as "part of the game."


May 1st, 2012 at 9:01 AM ^

Speaking as a football player who has sustained several concussions in my last three years, I can say that my brain still works fine. I still have a 3.5 gpa, and plan on playing football till no one wants me anymore


May 1st, 2012 at 9:04 AM ^

This just pisses me off.  This guy sounds jealous of people that have fun in life.

That you are entertained by it is not in question. Nor is it relevant. Romans were endlessly entertained by Christians being tossed to lions and by slaves being forced to fight as gladiators. 

No, I'm not claiming that football and gladiators and public executions and torture ceremonies are moral equivalents. I'm saying that society has always been entertained by violence and bloodshed. But society usually tries to trend towards the "better" and the "good." 


May 1st, 2012 at 11:49 AM ^

Key questions to ask:

1.  While it's been established that some ex-NFL players have suffered brain damage, has the same been found for players who quit football after college?  The NFL is a dangerous cocktail of factors: older players, who may have suffered head trauma over an extended period of time, who experience the fastest, most violent collisions.  College players are younger, less experienced and on the whole, less talented (leading to fewer vicious hits).

2.  If so, what is the rate of significant brain damage, and does this rate justify outlawing the sport? 

Say it turns out that 1% of players whose careers end at college suffer long-term brain damage.  Is that a sufficiently high rate to outlaw the sport?  I guess Gladwell would say yes, but I'm not sure.



May 1st, 2012 at 12:08 PM ^

On question 1, here is the prime case (from wikipedia, but the refs are back to the original news stories):


An autopsy conducted in 2010 on the brain of Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old junior lineman at the University of Pennsylvania who committed suicide by hanging himself, showed early stages of CTE, making him the youngest person to be diagnosed with the condition. Thomas was the second amateur football player diagnosed with CTE, after Mike Borich, who died at 42.[16] The doctors who performed the autopsy indicated that they found no causal connection between the nascent CTE and Thomas's suicide. There were no records of Thomas missing any playing time due to concussion, but as a player who played hard and "loved to hit people," he may have played through concussions and received thousands of subconcussive impacts on the brain.[17]

The Thomas case is disturbing both because he played at a lower level of college football and because he never apparently had a diagnosed concussion.

I think question 2 contains the vital issues. We know with relative certainty that football players can sustain significant brain damage by the point they are playing college football. I don't think we know the rates at which it occurs and what types of contact are most apt to lead to such brain trauma. Obviously, diagnosis is made difficult by the fact that CTE can only be conclusively diagnosed post-mortum, via a brain autopsy (this is chillingly why Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest). 

I think at the very least schools should be required to perform brain function tests on players when they enter their programs both at the high school and college levels, in order to have baselines against which to measure changes.

Section 1

May 1st, 2012 at 1:10 PM ^

...are repeating this same debate.

Malcolm Gladwell really is a genius.  (It will be interesting to see how many clicks Slate gets out of the deal.)


May 1st, 2012 at 3:42 PM ^

Players know there is a possibility to get injured, but they still play the game. They get enjoyment of the sport, and the possibility to become a pro athlete and make a whole bunch of money playing it. For me this is like the lottery. People know the odds, and they know they aren't good. People play the lottery regardless because of what could happen if they won. 


May 1st, 2012 at 4:05 PM ^

So we should, by force, stop the playing of football in America because of your ideas of value judgments you think players should have?

The entire draft class of 2012 knows (or should know, the information is out there, just like research on drug use is out there) the impact of multiple concussions, subconcussive hits and standard injuries like ACL tears or broken bones. As far as I know, none are about to decline contracts and go into whatever field their degree is in based on the risk.


May 1st, 2012 at 4:09 PM ^

That's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is "but they like it!" isn't an argument in it's support. There are many things people like that we don't allow them to do.

Regardless, I don't think anyone, including Gladwell, is advocating for the eradication of football (I think he's being hyperbolic to make a point). What I think is that people think the NCAA and NFL are extremely culpable for sweeping long-term head trauma under the rug, and that running a for-proft minor-league isn't in the scope of what higher education was meant for.


May 1st, 2012 at 6:43 PM ^

Fine. You used heroin as an example, which isn't a good one because it's already outlawed. This scenario requires shutting down an existing organization, not bringing in another bad one. A more fitting example would be alcohol. Alcohol has numerous terrible effects and it's used by a bigger percent of the population than the population that plays football. Should we have a second prohibition? If you really think so, then good for you. If not, your stance is just about as shaky as mine. Obviously the system could be better, but nobody has a really good solution for it at this point. If you do, then try to change it. 


May 1st, 2012 at 5:10 PM ^

I asked this somewhere else but it got buried.

How do they know about the brain trauma caused by sub-concussive contact? In what way is their knowledge formed?

A theory: Most of our knowledge is formed through experience. Current players know a lot about knee injuries, shoulder injuries and the like, because they see their teammates (and friends) get them and they see what the damage is and the recovery looks like. Many have likely experienced degrees of such injuries themselves. Today, they know a lot about concussions too, certainly a lot more than they did a few years ago. In seeing players be held out of practices and games, in seeing the treatment they receive, I would imagine most players have begun to consider them serious injuries and not just "getting your bell rung" as they were just a few years ago. (As a Packers fan, I can remember Favre getting a concussion against the Giants in 2004 and being shocked that he wasn't allowed to return to the game).

Most players do not, however, have experience with former players who experience diminished brain function because of CTE and other long-term brain trauma. As it primarily manifests itself years later (though the UPenn players shows that sub-concussive trauma are likely affecting at least some of their teammates), most players thus do not know about CTE in the same way they do injuries that manifest themselves immediately. I have no idea if players are directly informed about those dangers.

Should the burden be on players to arrive that knowledge in order to make an informed decision? Should teams/schools convey it in some way? I have no doubt that most players would choose to play, even knowing the risks of CTE, but I guess my broader question is who's responsibility is it to make sure they have the knowledge they need in order to make that choice?


May 1st, 2012 at 5:47 PM ^

only people who have gotten into the league since some of these stories/research findings have come out. The older guys pose a much different question than the one you asked (and my post specifically said the 2012 draft class).

Judging by some of the responses here I might be in the minority, but as far as obligation, I would say the participants. It might be good business practice for the NFL to fund research into brain trauma, run seminars for players and staff about the risks involved, ect. but I firmly believe that once information is out in the public sphere (and there have been stories in major publications about the effects of CTE, not to mention that we're debating an article from a good sized magazine that takes a very dramatic view on the subject) it falls on those who actually make a decision, just like salary or pension benefits should be weighed.

To draw a comparison (and please nobody kill me here, since this is a sensitive issue for a lot of people, I'm just trying to point out similarities, I'm not equating anything), PTSD in the military was downplayed for a long time, much like the effects of head trauma in the NFL. In fact, PTSD would fit well with your theory of recognizing risks via experience: the average Soldier/Sailor/Airman/Marine can easily identify with getting shot, but suffering severe psychological trauma is a different animal altogether. The military would do well to warn people before enlistment/commissioning about PTSD, but ultimately it falls on the individual to make the effort to discover the benefits and risks of any activity before deciding to do anything.

TLDR version: the NFL should be helping, but an individual is responsible for seeking out pertinant information before signing a contract or taking the field.


May 1st, 2012 at 7:19 PM ^

In high school, you have to rely on a third party in order to have legal consent, and the moral issue of allowing minors to play potentially life altering sports is certainly much more murky than with paid professionals.

As far as college, I'm not really sold on the idea that it's substantially different from the NFL. You're dealing with people old enough to enlist in the military, buy a weapon (and are assumed to be capable of using it responsibly) or own a business, so I believe they should be expected to understand the costs and benefits associated with repetitive brain trauma. That said, (IMO) universities that don't take proactive measures to explain these risks and really impress how serious CTE and the like can be are hypocritical at best, given the university's stated purpose for existing.

Either way, I don't think it matters much for the current crop of students/NFL'ers. They've always played and they will play until nobody will compensate them for it. The bigger issue is getting the parents of the next generation to understand the issues at play.


May 1st, 2012 at 3:51 PM ^

For one thing, they already tried banning the sport(See Teddy Roosevelt)If they could not ban the sport in its nascent stages why would they do it now?

His reason for banning is dubious. If as he claims lawsuits will bring about the sport's fall then why haven't cars/planes/trains been banned? These modes of travel have killed far more people and caused far more damage then football. Using his logic lawsuits long ago would have rendered these objects economically unviable. This also applies to every sport because people do get injured ine very sport. Very questionable logic in my point of view.

Secondly, how is football any worse than NASCAR or Skiing? In both sports you place yourself in mortal danger.(e.g: Sarah Burke and Dale Earnhardt) The last football player to die on the field that I know of was Chuck Hughes and that from a condition unrelated to the sport.

On the ethics of watching the game.Is the viewing of horror movies an ethical act? While what you are viewing in a horror film is fake the simple act of taking pleasure in viewing humans being eviscervated, shot, lynched,  and impaled in gruesome detail is far more disturbing than watching two men in pads smack into each other.

Malcolm Gladwell lives in a genteel world where everything is latte and scones. He represents the effete America. The side that refuses to acknowledge that brutality and physical prowess are every bit the part of the human condition as creative and intellectual genius. For One Percenters like Gladwell, fooball is an anarchonism from a bygone era where men were sweat-stained dullards who never read Jonson or debated Hegel.To Gladwell it is clear that football is not the the Sport of Kings, but the Sport of Uncivilized Brutes. 

I haven't taken the time to read his "Outliers' so I'll refrain from judging the man. But this interview indicates to me a level of elitism that ought to be noted. If anyone had any doubts that much of the intelligentsia is filled with provincial snobs than this article should put that to rest.